What I've been reading
No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood
I’m trying to write about every book I read this year, and in doing so, I want to say nice things about books I dislike, and speak critically about books I enjoy, and I’m trying to be honest and sincere in my reactions, all in the time left between doing the day job and failing to convince the kids that dinner is not poison and making sure I spend the proper amount of time worrying about World War III while also sinking into mindless, recuperative Instagram stupors and, oh yeah, reading the books, and then I hit No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood, a novel about an extremely online woman who experiences something real and true, and, sincerely, honestly, my first impulse was to go full snark-bomb on it. Now I’m worried I’m a bad person. Like, a really, really bad person.
Internet culture is tedious, isn’t it? Am I selling it short? I know there’s lots of ways to experience the Internet and lots of those ways are important for lots of people but as someone who is on it but not in it…I don’t know. I laughed out loud a lot, but found the humor cheap. Was it deep? Was it supposed to be? What am I missing? Am I missing it?
So I was clearly already having problems with the book when I reached its main turning point. I thought I'd guessed what that was going to be about. I was wrong. It was far more dramatic than I'd expected. And now it feels hard to say anything negative about this book without looking like a callous, soulless jerk.
This book makes me worry about the version of me it reveals to you. The me that is short-sighted and narrow and not as critical and insightful as he would like to be. The me that decided that writing a newsletter about books was a good idea but who can’t back that up with actual good ideas.
But also, is there any room to converse with a book like this? Trying to talk about this book or to this book feels a little bit like trying to talk to the discourse when you're not in the discourse.
I don’t read much mainstream contemporary midlist literary fiction, a category into which I’m perhaps incorrectly and certainly rudely lumping this book, in order to talk about myself. I would like to be an engaged literary citizen and read more books like this, but I don’t, because reasons. So I can’t meaningfully speak about current literary trends. It’s a blind spot.
So, is this book important? I can’t say.
That said, I’ve been bingeing The Maris Review podcast lately, and one episode I recently listened to, there was a discussion about the lack of engagement with the online space in current fiction, and how that’s weird, because this space is so fundamental to our culture, today.
So from that perspective, if that’s true, I can give props to Lockwood for writing about online life in a way that gives it some due weight.
But…is it actually due weight?
I grew up on a 300 baud dial-up modem plugged into a Commodore 64. BBSs, IRC, the Cleveland Freenet. I’ve seen things, and I think online culture was, while not perfect, better, back then. That’s my rose-colored view of history, at least. But it’s also me speaking factually correctly and I’m right. It was better.
And yet it’s not really interesting, anymore, is it, in an age when being online acts to serve the bottom lines of mega-corporations?
This machine kills fascists? This discourse sells behavior-based advertisement tracking!
And then there’s the turn the book took midway through. Yes, it’s well written, and beautiful, and sad. Of course it is. Lockwood transmuted painful experience into something striking and affecting and original and it didn’t feel like anything else I’ve read lately and I can’t say otherwise. I can’t. I’m not a monster.
And yet here I am, with its sour cotton candy taste, dissolving to an unfulfilled nothingness.
One other book that I’ve read recently that also speaks about our current moment was Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann. Of the two books, Ducks and No One, if I had to recommend one, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to put Lucy Ellmann’s novel in your hands. Which is crazy! It’s 1000 pages long! But. It’s…just, better.
Ellmann’s novel—I mean, the obvious joke here would be to say that it could have gone on for another thousand pages and I would have been fine with that, but no, actually, it ended exactly when it needed to. It pushed its conceit to the breaking point, and then stopped, and I felt consistently invited back into it over and over again across its entire length. It's an amazing feat.
I think Lockwood’s novel was probably 50 pages too long.
Further context, if it helps: I honestly had no idea who Patricia Lockwood was when I picked up the book. She’s kind of a big deal, I guess? All I knew was the cover kept catching my eye; at one point I think it got its cover tangled up in my mind with that of The Great Offshore Grounds, a completely unrelated book that I haven’t read but which I gifted to E., and then at the end of 2021 I realized the Lockwood book got a ton of rave reviews. Even not really knowing what the book was about, it felt like it was calling to me.
I haven’t read the reviews. I’m guessing I should. Because clearly this book bothers me more than I know how to put into words.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk
Do I roll with Nobel laureates? Kazuo Ishiguro, obviously, but we go way back. I liked the one book I read by Alice Munro; I should get back to her. I tried to get into Orhan Pamuk, and I remember loving the slow white pages of Snow, but I’ve struggled with him since. Things get hit or miss for me elsewhere on the list.
Point being, the prize isn’t a VIP pass to my TBR pile. But, the prize is how I clued in to Olga Tokarczuk. Why did she stand out for me? Was she a particularly interesting choice?
In any event: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is great. Five stars, highly recommend. It’s lit-major catnip, you could write papers and papers about it, I'm sure, but it was also fundamentally moving, enjoyable, weird enough, a well-structured, compellingly plotted narrative, a whodunnit murder mystery (though for long stretches of the book I actually forgot that's what it was) in a fascinating setting (a tiny, remote Polish village next to the Czech-Polish border) narrated by an interesting character (an older lady who looks after summer homes in the darkness of winter who also spends a lot of time thinking about animals and astrology). You do sort of have to dig her, erm, quirky, tumbling point of view to get into the story, it’s not really a heart-pounding thriller, and the final turn might not blow your mind—everything’s there, the cards are all on display, if you’re paying attention, though I admit I missed some of them, because I rarely read to predict endings—but Tokarczuk makes the trick of it feel fresh, I found it all delightfully readable and relatable, and I really enjoyed the ride. Real smooth, real fun.
After everything I wrestled with in Lockwood’s book you’d think I’d have more to say about a book I genuinely loved, but, nope. I have nothing negative to say about this book, and I feel like I lack the critical skill to talk in greater detail without giving the whole thing away—is that a cop out? Whatever. I enjoyed it and now I’m definitely more curious and think I might have to give that 950-page The Books of Jacob that just came out in English a shot. Shoot.
Do you enjoy typing on computers? Are you way into the novel Ulysses? Well then, do I have a video game for you!
Okay, it’s not Thomas Pynchon, but, Cormac McCarthy publishing two connected novels a month apart from each other? That’s certainly one way to disrupt my autumnal reading plans.
Want me to take over editing the New York Times Books section? Start your letter-writing campaign now.
If a Nobel prize and my endorsement aren’t enough, Olga Tokarczuk also just got added to the 2022 International Booker Prize longlist.
The 2022 Tournament of Books is happening. I don’t have much skin in this game. As I write this there’s a chance of a Kazuo Ishiguro vs. Patricia Lockwood match-up down the line, which. Well. Not that I take the tournament seriously, but, once upon a time a judge knocked Kazuo Ishiguro out of the tournament, and I still regularly rain curses down upon that judge's unknowing head.
Fun fact I learned, putting this issue together: TinyLetter is part of MailChimp, which I knew, but I just learned that MailChimp is in turn owned by the company that does TurboTax.
Am I wrong about something? Hit reply and yell at me. Or hit reply and yell at me for being right. Being right would be fun, too!
I listened to a couple episodes of The Coode Street Review podcast recently and now I want to read every single genre book that was released in 2021. Darn it.
I’ve been bingeing The Maris Review. I just hit episode 60. It does makes me want to put a lot more contemporary stuff on my TBR pile. A year or two ago I did read The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon based off her interview. I liked that one.